The Iron Claw: Sad — and Snubbed by the Oscars

Spoiler Alert: this is a profoundly sad movie, but also a very good one.

Courtesy A24
Snubbed badly by the Oscars, the wrestling film 'The Iron Claw' still packs a powerful punch. Courtesy A24

“The Iron Claw” shows that every year, there’s at least one movie that deserves major awards recognition, but barely receives any. This effort by director Sean Durkin about the real-life on Erlich family – considered the pro wrestling equivalent to the Kennedys – would have traditionally fit with the criteria of films often nominated for awards, as it’s a sports tragedy and an immense physical transformation by one of its biggest stars. 

In this case, Zac Efron plays Kevin Von Erich, who (spoiler alert) will emerge as the lone surviving member of the tragic family. Mr Efron, with his boyish looks, is perfectly cast (at their peak, the Von Erlch brothers had a passionate female fanbase). What makes Mr. Efron’s performance so special is that his good-hearted character gives the film gravitas. It’s fair to say that Mr. Efron has finally put “High School Musical” behind him, 

The rest of the cast exceeds all expectations, as each actor captures the fear and ambition that shape the family. Jeremy Allen White, coming off the success of “The Bear,” plays Kerry Von Erich, the most athletic brother, whose ambitions of being an Olympian were shattered by President Carter’s boycott of the 1980 Soviet Olympics. British actor Harris Dickinson is David Von Erich, the most macho brother. Stanley Simons plays kid brother Mike, an aspiring musician who is more sensitive than Kevin, and gives the film many moments of grace. But Holt McEnnany steals the show as patriarch Fritz Von Erich, who wishes his sons to become wrestlers through any means necessary and uphold the family legacy.

‘The Iron Claw’ is based on the true story of the tragic Von Erich pro wrestling family. Wikipedia

There’s a growing fear in each of these characters, as they face the family curse, beginning with their eldest child Jack Jr, who died from drowning at the age of 6. The curse consists of the men encountering sudden ailments and committing suicide; as they wrestle to compensate for their unrealized dreams, they physically and mentally deteriorate. Fritz, a former wrestling heel, only cares about strength, despite his sons’ bodies falling one after the other in front of his eyes. 

Mr Durkin portrays this brutal world with remarkable subtlety. He adds fading transitions to display the men’s unconscious emotions, whether they are victorious or are coping with the loss of their family members. The audience becomes trapped in their crumbling ennui, something that becomes apparent when the brothers win a tag team match with Fritz, who delivers a staged but terrifying speech in which he ranks his sons while the camera slowly zooms. We previously heard about the rankings before and this felt normal, given that Fritz is the father figure. But now, it becomes insidious, and the film grows even more bleak.

As the rest focuses on accelerating tragedy, it becomes more genuine about the idea of survival being a coming-of-age story. Kevin is, at heart, a teenager. When he receives an autograph from his soon-to-be wife Pam Atkinssen (Lily James), he’s a bit socially awkward at times, and Fritz berates him for not growing up past 40, all because he wants to take care of his family. Simultaneously, he sticks to his ambitions of being a heavyweight champion and manages to avoid a lot of the pitfalls suffered by his brothers.

To paraphrase Francois Truffaut, there’s no such thing as an anti-wrestling film. This is because wrestling is, perhaps surprisingly, a medium capable of great storytelling. If a curse defined the Von Erichs, then it is the titular Iron Claw maneuver that has made them the icons that they are now. Mr Durkin embraces the sport’s quirks, from bad acting to the flamboyant personae, including the egregious antics of Ric Flair. Underneath, the Von Erichs believe in each other, and that’s a compelling narrative by itself.  

Sean Durkin attends the UK premiere of ‘Iron Claw’ at The Curzon Mayfair on January 31, 2024 in London. Joe Maher/Getty Images

“The Iron Claw” understates its family’s victories, emphasising their pain more. In one sequence, we see Kerry winning one of his matches, but the camera doesn’t pay attention to that; instead, it focuses on the wistful trees as the announcement is playing. In the hands of another director, this could have been mushy. But the characters are more palatable and human.

Had Mr. Durkin stuck more closely to the true story of the Von Erichs, the film would have been even sadder, perhaps too sad. The director deliberately left out the youngest brother, Chris, who, like two of his other brothers, committed suicide. Mr. Durkin told an interviewer “I just didn’t believe [the movie] could withstand one more tragedy.” 

As of this writing this, “The Iron Claw” has surpassed more than $30 million domestically, and is one of edgy studio A24’s highest-grossing films. It brings a performance of a lifetime out of Mr Efron, but it also shows artistic growth from Mr Durkin. This makes “The Iron Claw” one of 2023’s most fascinating films, and it’s a shame if the Oscars are not there to witness greatness.

The New York Sun

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